November 17, 2006 (WLS) -- One of Illinois' highest profile charities teaches the Heimlich maneuver to children while maneuvering the truth to get money from government and big business.
It's called the Save-A-Life Foundation and is known across Illinois as an organization that teaches schoolchildren how to respond in emergencies. For the past few years, Save-A-Life has received millions of dollars in government funds and corporate donations. An ABC7 I-Team investigation has uncovered a series of misleading claims and deceptive credentials that raise doubts about Save-A-Life's integrity, funding and training.
Save-A-Life officials say they have taught the Heimlich maneuver and other first aid techniques to more than 1 million schoolchildren since 1995. They claim to have taught nearly 70,000 children how to save a life in the Chicago Public Schools this year alone.
On the Save-A-Life website, the organization promotes itself with a cartoon character of Schools' CEO Arnie Duncan, who acts as an animated pitchman.
The organization now enlists volunteer paramedics to teach in downstate Illinois, in the Milwaukee and Miami-Dade schools; and now students in Philadelphia and California.
"Our ultimate goal is to make this part of driver's ed so that it becomes unified just as brushing teeth," said Carol Spizzirri, Save-A-Life founder.
Spizzirri is the matriarch of the Save-A-Life Foundation, based in west suburban Schiller Park, and she has captured the attention -- and the funding -- of those who hold government purse strings. For nearly 15 years, to mayors and members of congress, she has represented herself as trained, registered nurse.
Spizzirri says she got her nursing degree in Wisconsin. Currently, Save-A-Life's website and her bio claim, not only that she is an RN, but that she specializes in kidney transplants. The I-Team asked if that is true.
"Not at this time," Spizzirri said. "I no longer have. I haven't registered in a number of years."
According to state officials, the now-defunct Wisconsin college where Spizzirri claims to have received a nursing degree never awarded her a degree of any kind, and government records show she has never been registered as a nurse in either Wisconsin, as she told the I-Team she was, or in Illinois.
"I had a nursing degree and I have worked in a hospital," said Spizzirri.
Officials at the Milwaukee hospital where she claims to have been a transplant nurse say she had a paid job for a couple of years, as a patient care assistant akin to a candy striper.
"Absolutely it's fair game to go after her for her credentials and her alleged story of how she got started in all of this, because if they are incorrect or fraudulent or misrepresented, then how can you believe anything she says after that?" said Dr. Robert Baratz, National Council Against Health Fraud.
The president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, a watchdog organization of medical professionals, says that federal and state funding agencies have been defrauded by Spizzirri's claims that she has a nursing degree and license.
"It's free to the children. We bring this course to schools for free," Spizzirri said.
But it wasn't free to the Chicago Public Schools, where officials say Save-A-Life charged them $50,000 the past two years.
Schools CEO Arnie Duncan says it seems unlikely that Carol Spizzirri's organization could have taught the number of students they claim, and it's not free to the taxpayers, who give Save-A-Life more than $1 million a year through the Homeland Security department, Centers For Disease Control and the State of Illinois.
"If you have an organization that has mostly volunteers, where's the million dollars going?" said Baratz. "It doesn't take a million dollars to print a pamphlet."
Spizzirri pays herself an annual salary of $120,000, according to Save-A-Life records on file with the Illinois attorney general. She travels on a generous expense account while working to obtain additional government funding for expansion of her organization nationally.
Spizzirri repeatedly tells politicians and public this story of her motivation:
"My daughter was coming home from work on Labor Day of '92. She was struck by a hit-and-run, and her arm had been severely injured, and she bled to death before EMS arrived," said Spizzirri.
But even that isn't true, according to police and hospital reports and an inquest by the Lake County coroner. The official record states that 18-year-old Christina Spizzirri was legally drunk at the time of the accident; and that after hosting a drinking party while her mother was vacationing in Florida, the teenager got behind the wheel and flipped her own car.
Police records show there was no hit-and-run, and even though the local police didn't know emergency first aid, the teenager did not die at the scene as Carol Spizzirri contends. Medical records state that Christina died 30 minutes after arriving at the hospital.
I-Team: "It was not a hit and run, was it?"
Spizzirri: "Yes, it was. Oh, my gosh. I got proof of that, absolutely ... I'm done, the interview's over."
After terminating that interview three weeks ago, Spizzirri's spokesperson requested that we e-mail our additional questions. So we asked for information supporting Spizzirri's often repeated story of Christina's death and any proof that Spizzirri has the medical training, licensing and expertise that she claims. They provided the I-Team with nothing.
The Heimlich Method
The Heimlich has become a brand name, like the Band-Aid. Dr. Henry Heimlich claims to have invented the technique in which you stand behind a choking victim, wrap your arms around them and pull sharply on their lower abdomen. Dr. Heimlich is medical advisor for a suburban Chicago charity called the Save-A-Life Foundation. Questions are being raised about both Heimlich and the founder of Save-A-Life, Carol Spizzirri.
The maneuver is so universally known that it is currently seen in a bank commercial which was shown by Dr. Henry Heimlich during a recent speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. But the Heimlich hasn't always been the prescribed method of helping someone who is choking.
As a country doctor in the movie Field of Dreams showed, back slaps were for decades the favored way to clear an airway blockage. The I-Team has learned that back slaps are back.
The American Red Cross, the nation's leading first aid organization, no longer supports the use of the Heimlich maneuver as the initial response when someone begins choking. Last spring, in a surprisingly under-publicized change, the Red Cross mandated its instructors to teach several sharp slaps to the back when someone begins choking, which induces them to cough.
"Research has shown that a series of five of each together is the most proven mechanism for releasing obstructed items from conscious children and adults," said Martha Dittmar, American Red Cross.
The Red Cross recommends Heimlich's abdominal thrust only if back slaps fail. That is the opposite of what the Save-A-Life Foundation continues to teach to thousands of school children in Chicago and several other states.
"We have trained this year alone, in the Chicago Public Schools alone, 67,000 children," said Carol Spizzirri, Save-A-Life Foundation.
Spizzirri is the founder of Save-A-Life. She claims to have a nursing degree and be a registered nurse, but state officials say their records show that neither is true. When the I-Team challenged her qualifications, Spizzirri walked out on our interview and has since declined numerous offers to supply evidence of her medical training and licensing.
A Spizzirri spokesman did e-mail a statement fully supporting the Heimlich method, which is hardly surprising, because Spizzirri enlisted Dr. Henry Heimlich as the medical advisor of Save-A-Life.
Heimlich has rejected the Red Cross' downgrading of his maneuver for choking and continues urging that it be used for other things as well, including drowning.
"The Heimlich maneuver can drive the water out. The Heimlich maneuver will stop an asthma attack," said Heimlich.
Heimlich also urges the maneuver be used on cystic fibrosis victims, all claims that have stunned the medical community and major medical organizations, which warn that the use of the Heimlich maneuver in those situations could be fatal.
The American Lung Association asked Chicago respiratory expert Dr. John Shannon to speak with us.
"It shouldn't be used at all in asthma in cystic fibrosis or any chronic inflation disorder in the lung passages," said Dr. John Shannon, Stroger Cook County Hospital ."There is a good possibility of making a person with asthma substantially worse."
Dr. Heimlich has spent his career in Cincinnati where the maneuver was introduced and promoted more than 30 years ago.
The I-Team visited the impressive-sounding Heimlich Institute, which exists to promote Heimlich and his maneuver, on the accounting floor of a Cincinnati office. We found the office, with no one in it, the phone answered by a machine.
The hospital that houses Heimlich's so-called Institute did not answer the I-Team's numerous requests for information about its relationship with Dr. Heimlich.
The 86-year-old Heimlich asked the I-Team for a list of questions about his relationship with Save-A-Life and the downgrading of his maneuver by the Red Cross. Chuck Goudie personally delivered the letter to his Cincinnati condo and handed it to his wife. Heimlich has since refused a television interview.
A public relations firm sent the I-Team a statement in which Heimlich says he became involved in Save-A-Life because he admired its mission and that his choking maneuver has saved thousands of lives.
Heimlich says he hasn't actually practiced medicine for more than 30 years since leaving the Jewish hospital here where he was chief of surgery. Neither the hospital nor Heimlich would disclose why they parted. He no longer has a medical license, but he and the Save-A-Life Foundation where he is medical advisor continue to advocate a wider use of the maneuver for drowning and asthma.
"His methods he is espousing have never been proven medically. There have never been controlled studies to show any of them work," said Robert Baratz, National Council Against Health Fraud.
In a press release Friday, the Save-A-Life Foundation said, in part, that it "stands by its excellent reputation as provider of first aid skills training and a good steward of the monies entrusted to us by taxpayers and private donors."
Over the past 10 years, Save-A-Life says, it has "carefully documented its training of hundreds of thousands of children K through 12, with many accounts of individual lives saved as a result.
"In addition, Save-A-Life says it has been at the forefront of efforts to protect the Good Samaritan law and introduced legislation, subsequently passed by the Illinois senate, to improve public safety by requiring all first responders receive training."
So there is no confusion, the Save-A-Life Foundation that we are investigating, is not connected to "Operation Save-A-Life," which is a fire and carbon monoxide safety effort by the Chicago Fire Department and ABC7.
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